November 20, 2017

How not to sell things

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Some time ago I went into a specialist shop in Edinburgh to buy some stereo equipment. I knew next to nothing about the technology but had forearmed myself by studying a buyers’ guide and memorising the jungle of letters and numbers that was the brand name of the Best Buy model.

The sales assistant beamed when I asked for it. ‘A great buy’, he said ‘tremendous value and quality. Unfortunately we don’t have any in stock just now …. But the shop across the road does…!’

So I went across the road and bought my equipment from his competitor.

Some time later I was browsing in one of Edinburgh’s oldest second-hand bookshops. I went up to the sales assistant whose head was buried in a book. ‘Do you have any Steinbeck?’ I asked. ‘We don’t do S’ he replied. ‘We only do A to M.’ Then he went back to his book.

And last week I thought I would go to see a film at my favourite Edinburgh cinema where several movies were showing that night. One of them had 100 per cent critic approval on the review website Rotten Tomatoes. The film was called Pecking Order and it was a documentary about rearing chickens for show competition in New Zealand.

I was intrigued. How could an Antipodean documentary about rearing chickens for show get such rave reviews? So that night I stood at the box office and asked: ‘one ticket for Pecking Order please’. The assistant looked at me and said, ‘There was another movie about rearing chickens the other day. It’s not as good as that.’

I was startled. ‘Rotten Tomatoes critics gave it 100 per cent. And 94 per cent of the audience liked it too.’

‘It’s good’, he replied, firmly. ‘But it’s not as good as the other one.’

So what do these three stories have in common? Well, first they are all true. Then they all involved young male Edinburgh sales assistants who were clearly knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the type of product they were supposed to be selling (which possibly led them to accepting modest wages to work with these same products). They obviously enjoyed showing off their superior knowledge to the average customer walking in off the streets (and I was at best a very average customer in each case).

But it is also what in economics is called a principal-agent problem. In this case the employer is the principal and the sales assistant the agent. Does having such highly qualified, knowledgeable (and probably cheap) sales staff actually help the revenue base of the company involved, especially when online shopping now gives the potential customer the opportunity to avoid such encounters – and possible embarrassment – in the first place?

I do not know the answer. I do know the first shop has now closed down, the sales assistant has left the bookshop, and I also know that Pecking Order is a very good film (I went to see it anyway). But that still left me with a question, which I was too startled to ask the sales assistant.

If that is only the second best film about chicken rearing, then what is the best one?

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